Neil Doncaster is having a bad month. The chief executive of the Scottish Professional Football Leagues has faced some fierce criticism after his proposed scheduling of this season final league matches and playoff games earned him an angry reaction from the clubs. Having suggested that the final day fixtures be played at different times, the idea was widely shot down as it presented an unfair advantage to the teams playing later in the day. He has since backed down in his decision and returned games to the same time but has now been caught up in a second row which has added to his problems. Doncaster proposed that the current league playoff fixtures be moved to the start of June in an effort to extend the existing season but his proposal has sparked further protest. Motherwell boss Ian Baraclough was the loudest of the protests claiming that his side would seek compensation from the league if forced to play in June. His reasoning was that a majority of his player’s contracts finish on May 31st so in order to play this important fixture the club would have to extend their contracts for an additional month, something that Motherwell had not budgeted for. No retort has been issued by Doncaster or the SPFL but it is yet another baffling call by the leagues governing body which already had several headaches when it comes to fixture planning in the various divisions.
The set up for the Scottish leagues was designed to be simple but is anything but that. With a top tier of 12 teams and three lower leagues of 10, the format is similar to various continental counterparts. But slight alterations made in a desperate attempt to maximize television revenues have turned the leagues into a baffling mess. Firstly in the SPL every team plays each of their opponents three times during the regular season before the league splits into a top six and a bottom six for the final five games. This split is meant to determine European and relegation places however it has various problems attached to it. Firstly the split can often result in teams playing an uneven number of games against others in the league. The SPFL has tried to mitigate this risk by predicting at the start of the season where each team will finish (known as seeding) and aligns the fixture list as such. Based on previous seasons final placing, this model can predict fairly accurately, with the exception of when a team who has generally finished in the top six has a poor season like Motherwell had this year, finishing in the bottom half. Due to this, their fixtures were heavily weight at the beginning of the campaign against the teams expected to finish in the bottom six. They will now face one extra game against these teams instead of the expected fixtures against the top six teams. This in a sense gives Motherwell a slight unfair advantage over its rivals in the bottom six. The other issue which is somewhat ignored by Doncaster is that often the team in sixth can finish the season on less points than the team in seventh. How this is permitted to happen is unknown but Doncaster just sees it merely as a slight hiccup in the split system. The split is seen by the SPFL as essential to avoid the teams having to play a 44 game season (each team home and away twice). But now there are fresh calls to review the format and scrap the split system all together.
Dundee United boss Jackie McNamara has spoken out at the failures of the current league structure and points to leagues across the world which operate on better models. His suggestion is that the SPL be expanded to a 16 or 18 team league which would effectively ditch the split model in favour of a straight league structure. He argues that there are no other leagues in the world operating this bizarre structure and he is almost correct (Malta operates a similar system). But McNamara’s point is valid given that his side has had to face champions elect Celtic six times this year so far (three in the cup) with a seventh game set for April 26th. A move to a larger top league and condensed lower league structure would simplify the fixture chaos that currently reigns over the leagues each season. McNamara is not alone in his thinking with other bosses in the various leagues echoing his thoughts. At present Neil Doncaster has refused to entertain a change to the format that has been in place since 2001 but as the pressure grows on him he may be forced to listen to the clubs and finally signal an end to the fixture chaos.